The Killers, a film released in 1946 and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner and based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, is a suspenseful film noir detailing the investigation into the life and death of a former box-turned-criminal. Although it presents some perplexing notions of the relations between men and women, it is nevertheless a perfect example of the film noir genre and the perfect movie for suspense-lovers.
The Plot of The Killers
The story begins with the brutal shooting of a man called variously “the Swede” and Ole Anderson (played by the muscular Burt Lancaster,) by two hired killers. After the murder, an insurance investigator named Jim Reardon (played by Edmund O’Brien) attempts to uncover who was responsible for the murder and why. In the process, he uncovers a twisted web of deceit and betrayal.
Central to this web is the femme fatale Kitty Collins (played by the enchanting and beautiful Ava Gardner.) As Reardon uncovers more about the life of the mysterious Swede (the story is told primarily through flashbacks,) he finds out that Kitty, who professed to love Ole, was in fact double-crossing him, and is in fact at least indirectly responsible for his death. The film ends with her tearfully clutching her dead husband (who has also perished because of her duplicity.)
The Style of The Killers
The Killers displays the many of the visual motifs that have come to be associated with the movie genre known as film noir. For example, there is extensive use of shadows and glaring light to suggest the moral ambiguity of many of the characters involved. Furthermore, the use of disorienting camera shots serves to unsettle the viewer, again one of the hallmarks of film noir.
It is the characters, however, that most clearly associate this film with the film noir genre. All the elements are present, including a likeable but misguided hero (Lancaster,) a wicked woman who leads said hero astray (Gardner,) and the hard-boiled, almost emotionless detective who will stop at nothing to solve the crime (O’Brien.) Taken together, these three stock characters of film noir create a film that is both incredibly riveting and almost unbearably suspenseful. Furthermore, it is peopled with a lively and interesting supporting cast, including the gangsters who are responsible for the hero’s demise.
Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?
Although its plot can become rather convoluted and hard-to-follow at times, The Killers is nevertheless definitely worth watching time and again. Like all members of the film noir genre, it is very unsettling to see the ways in which people can lose their moral compass as a result of their greed and desire for material wealth. It is definitely not for those who like their films to have a happy and emotionally gushy ending.
That being said, the film also presents some troubling depictions of women, at least to a modern sensibility. However, it is important to realize that, for all that the woman is the source of the man’s downfall, she actually possesses more cleverness and mental ability than almost all of the men that surround her. Although she is punished in the end, modern female audiences can look at the femme fatale and see her as a source of empowerment rather than punishment.